The Zen Master and the Toy Bird

2013TUS_WebsiteEarlier tonight I participated in a local story telling event called Tell Us Something that is put together every few months here in town.  Anyone is welcome to tell a story and basically all you have to do is email the folks who put these gatherings together beforehand and ask to be signed up.  There’s no auditioning and the only requirements are that it has to be a true personal story and when you perform your piece you can’t have any notes with you.  Each event also has a theme for which your story must be based on and tonight’s was Perception – a great buddhist topic eh?

By sheer happenstance I wound up being the only female signed up to go on stage tonight to tell a story.  The venue was at a local bar that had been recently renovated called the Top Hat and the place was packed when I arrived.  I was pretty nervous and while I had questioned whether having friends there would be supportive or cause me to be more nervous I did let some folks know about it and announced it at my sangha last night.  A nice showing of sangha friends came out for which I was very grateful for.  There were 12 of us story tellers that went on tonight and we were each given 10 minutes to fill.  The host sets up a count down timer and then sounds a small gong at the 9-minute mark to indicate that you need to wrap your story up and he had to go on stage once to get a story teller off the mic who just kept rambling long after the gong was sounded.  But other than that everyone pretty much kept at or around 10 minutes, although for some it was harder to do than others.

I’m not a natural story teller.  But over the last couple of years or so I’ve been actively and intentionally working on creatively sharing with others.  I play music and sing and I do some spoken word as well.  And of course I love to write.  I’ve been skillfully pushing myself towards sharing more and more and working on letting go of my shyness and fear around doing so.  It’s been a wonderful process.  So this story telling adventure tonight was another big beautiful step in the direction of getting out of my comfort zone and sharing creatively with others.

Lotus flower in New Hamlet

Lotus flower in New Hamlet, Plum Village

The story I worked up was an experience I had from the 21-day retreat at Plum Village that my husband and I attended last summer (which is what originally kicked off my starting this blog).  After some microphone adjustments were made, due to my small 5’2″ height in comparison to all of the tall dudes that went before me, here’s the story that I shared about perception:

So, I am what you might call a buddhist practitioner and in our tradition we have a saying that goes: Where there is perception, there is deception, and along those lines I have this little story to offer.

Last year my husband and I had the wonderful opportunity to attend a 21-day meditation retreat at our root monastery in the south of France called Plum Village which is also where our root teacher resides, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s often referred to as Thay by his students.  And Thay means teacher in Vietnamese. Thay is a Vietnamese buddhist monk who has written many, many books and hundreds of poems and has led, and continues to lead, retreats all over the world.  So my husband and I went to this retreat and stayed in Plum Village and it was our first trip overseas.  And Plum Village is also home to many monks and nuns in our tradition and serves as a practice center for lay people as well, meaning folks who aren’t monks and nuns, with retreats and events led throughout the year in many different languages.  Now, Plum Village is set up into three main hamlets, upper, lower and new hamlet and they are all on different tracts of land that aren’t connected.  So upper and lower hamlet are a 45 minute walk apart and new hamlet was a 20 minute bus ride away.  This particular retreat attracted around 800 people from all over the world and we were divided up among these hamlets for our lodging.

On one particular day towards the end of the retreat we had a celebration day and we were celebrating the 30 year anniversary of Plum Village.  So all of us in lower and upper hamlets were bused to new hamlet where Thay gave a teaching, called a dharma talk, and then afterwards we had the opportunity to do some outdoor walking meditation, which is very slow and held in silence.  And we went around the pond at new hamlet where the first lotus flowers of the season were in bloom, which were quite spectacular.  After the walk we had lunch and then the celebratory event was held in which there was a gallery exhibit set up and some wonderful artisan cupcakes, which I assumed came from a local parisian bakery because of how fine crafted and intricate they were.  And then there were these performances that were put together by some of the monastics.

So as the performances were getting ready I grabbed a seat on the grass, as it was an outdoor venue, by these cool, old stone buddha statues.  And as everyone started sitting down my new friend and one of my roommates Clara, from the Netherlands, came to sit with me.  And she and I wound up with not only a great vantage point of the performance area but also of Thay who was seated not far from us in the grass (facing to our right side) and most of the retreatants were sitting or standing behind him.  And to see Thay so closely was a treat because to me one of the marks of a truly wonderful and wise teacher is one who is always teaching with their presence and doesn’t need to be saying anything.  To simply watch him interact with his environment and the way he sits and moves is so beautiful to see so it was a gift to have such a clear, unobstructed sight of him, which wasn’t often easy to have during the course of the retreat with so many others around.

The first performance offered was given by some of the nuns who were acting out one of Thay’s poems that he had written.  And over their monastic robes they had adorned them with other fabrics and feathers and some were dressed as trees and others as birds.  As they acted out this poem so sweetly and gracefully over the speakers that had been set up came this nice, melodic, soft sounding oriental type of music.  And once in a while over the music came this shrill bird call that drifted in at very odd seemingly displaced times.  At first I thought to myself, “Hmmm, that’s a strange noise,” and then I let it go.  But as it kept happening I started getting irritated with it and formed this inner dialogue with myself saying things like, “Didn’t they do a run through of this before the performance to know that that noise doesn’t sound good,” and , “Why don’t they stop doing that, it’s just awful!”

After a few minutes of mild irritation and distraction by this bird call my friend Clara nudges me and says, “Thay’s making that noise.”  And I turned to her with a puzzled expression wondering what the heck she was talking about and she continued, “That bird noise, that’s Thay!”  And I thought to myself, “How in the world could he be making that noise?  It doesn’t make any sense.”  Then she whispered, “Watch him.”  So I turn my attention to him wondering what in the world I was looking for and after a couple of minutes I see him reach down to this little toy bird sitting in the grass beside him that was set up next to a microphone.  Then Thay patted the bird and out came the bird call over the speakers.  And on his face alighted this beautiful, sweet smile and from it I got such a sense of joy and ease and lightness and also a hint of mischief, that a Zen Master can sometimes have, as if to say, “Ha ha, no one knows I’m making this bird noise.”  And in that moment my relationship to this bird call changed right away, like the flip of a switch and I went from being irritated and distracted to encountering this deep teaching.  Right then I became aware of how distracted I had allowed myself to get, because I wasn’t aware of that at the time.  Here I was on a bright sunny blue June day in the freakin’ south of France at this monastery with a Zen Master sitting just 30 feet away and I was allowing a bird call, of all things, to carry me away from the present moment.

This was a deep teaching and one that I hope to continue to carry with me moment by moment into the future as I continue on my path of practice.  Because when I stop and take the time to look deeply I see how often I think I have everything figured out – I know why this person is doing that and why this situation is going like that and I think I have it all figured out when I really have no idea.  Thay is fond of saying that 99% of our perceptions are incorrect and that figure is so astronomical to me that I can’t quite wrap my brain around it but I’m working on it.  Because again, when I take the time to look deeply I can start to understand how often I create my own suffering based on my perceptions and how intertwined perception and deception really are – they go together and much like the in-breath and the out-breath cannot be separated.


A picture of Thay I found online

The transition back home

Its been almost 4 weeks since we got home from Plum Village.  There’s a saying in this tradition Go As a River and transitioning back into daily life after being on retreat for 21-days felt very much like this.  When I first came across this saying it rubbed me the wrong way and I misunderstood its teaching.  I took it to mean that we had to go with the collective flow and not question things or stand out from the crowd but I see it differently now.  Go As a River means to be with life in all of its meanderings, embracing joys and difficulties along the way.

The morning after we got home cloudless blue June skies shone brightly on 3 weeks worth of mail piled on the kitchen table, an answering machine wildly blinking non-stop, backpacks filled to the brim with dirty clothes and   Plum Village treasures, cats starving for attention and 200 unanswered emails.  And something was different.  My friend and dharma teacher Rowan asked me just today, “do you know how to tell when the practice is working?”  I answered that yes I thought I did know and then proceeded to ask whether there was a trick.  He said, “you know the practice is working when you have a different response to something then you had before.”    And I did.  Instead of getting stressed out when integrating back home from a big trip, hurriedly unpacking as soon as possible, running around multitasking to an Olympic sport level I said to myself, “this will all get done in time.”  All weekend I didn’t unpack (OK maybe I unpacked a little bit), I didn’t open the mail, I didn’t listen to the answering machine or get carried away cleaning, I wasn’t stressed out thinking that I HAD to do everything RIGHT NOW.  My view of life unfolding was different.  I was at ease and going as a river.  And the experience was so much more enjoyable!

I was hoping that after returning home from the retreat my addiction to sugar would be broken a little bit, my sleeping and eating patterns would be more regulated, and I wouldn’t be as hooked on netflix at night.  Out of the 4 I’m currently at 2 and 2.  One one hand my sugar cravings are greatly reduced and I am eating 3 meals a day, mindful of paying attention to the signs of needing to eat.  On the other hand my sleep schedule is off balance once again and I am not getting enough rest and I am gradually reuniting with netflix at night to help distract me from my physical pains and exhaustion.  Life is about balance.  Getting entirely rid of sugar or netflix is not the answer – cultivating a balance is where we as a collective find a path of joy and ease.  And it will not happen overnight.  The balance comes from teeter tottering back and forth between the left and right side of the middle path.

Day 23: We have Arrived We are Home!

Thay’s Calligraphy

(written on June 23rd, 2012)

Taking off an hour late from Paris sent us into a mad dash through the Toronto airport in a an effort to make our connecting flight to Denver.  We went from being sedentary for 8 hours flying over the ocean to running like the wind through the airport to customs where we had to retrieve our bags, go through customs, hand our bags back over and find our gate for departure.  After mentally preparing ourselves for the simple truth that we weren’t going to make our flight our plane was delayed due to so many passengers arriving late.

The 3 hour jaunt to Denver ended with a rough landing that left us dizzy and nauseous as we wearily entered the Denver airport for a 5 hour layover.  We immediately found a place to sit on the floor to rest and get our land legs back under us.  Our heads were spinning from the descent and lack of food in our system and we were in the beginning stages of delirium from lack of sleep but we were putting effort into keeping our spirits high.  A short trip up the escalator led us to a refreshingly and oddly vacant open, large area where I laid down while Mike went to get us some dinner at Panda Express.  After we ate we felt a lot better.

Our comedic stylings illustrating how we were feeling on the last leg of the journey back home in the Denver airport

On the two hour flight to Missoula we made a concerned effort to catch a nap so that we would be somewhat presentable and coherent when we arrived home to meet my mom and step-dad at the airport.  We touched down in Missoula around 11:45pm and were greeted at the gate by a wonderful surprise.  My best friend Jennifer and her beau Scott were sitting in meditation postures on the floor smiling and waiting for us.  They had decided on a whim to come to the airport and welcome us home.

My mom and step-dad arrived in their winnebago and after we grabbed our backpacks from the rotating baggage carousel we went home where we found a welcome home sign in the style of the french flag on our front door, a large eiffel tower helium balloon tied to one of our kitchen chairs, and a note letting us know that our sweet, dear friends (Jennifer, Amy and Rhonda) had divided up work and mowed our lawn, cleaned the house, and bought some groceries for us.  I was overwhelmed by their generosity, thoughtfulness and hard, loving work.  It was such a wonderful gift to come home to!

A picture I took and emailed to Amy, Rhonda & Jennifer for doing so much hard work around the house 

I had a rather fitful night’s sleep but after a little while I did get some much needed rest.  It was about a 24 hour journey from Paris to Missoula.  We really didn’t experience any jet lag going to Paris since we had a nice overnight flight across the Atlantic but coming home is a horse of another color.  We left Paris on Friday at 11:00am and arrived in Missoula at 11:45pm on the same day, although 24 hours had passed.  Time is a strange phenomena sometimes.

We’re home, with our 2 fuzzy cats, freshly mowed lawn, and queen mattress where we can sleep side by side readjusting to the 8 hour time difference between here and France and processing our journey to Plum Village.

Day 22: The Journey Home

Our airport hotel room in Paris

(written on June 22nd, 2012)

In an Air Canada 777 over the open ocean plugged into the armrest headphone jack listening to XM enRoute Francophone in the music bank, provided on my personal screen in the seat in front of me, I see Europe in my metaphorical rear view mirror and North America sprawled out on the horizon.  The cabin air is cool and surprisingly fresh.  Many of my fellow travelers are wrapped in their sumer sky blue airplane blankets.

Last night we arrived in Paris via the TGV (aka the bullet train) around 7:30 in the evening.  At the Montparnasse station we caught the #4 metro to Gare du Nord with a Plum Village retreat goer, a young Alaskan named Johanna.  From there we caught the B train to Charles De Gaulle Airport.  Having had no reservations or plans of where to stay for the night we decided to just get a room at a hotel in the airport.  It was 9:30pm or so by the time we got to our room.  We were quite tired from the long day’s haul.  After crawling out from our hefty backpacks we went downstairs to grab some dinner at a pizza restaurant attached to the hotel lobby.  I ordered a cheese pizza (pretty much the only vegetarian fare in Paris) and an ice tea and Mike got a limousine burger and a glass of bordeaux.  His burger arrived sans bun and sans everything else we know to be burger like.

At the airport getting ready to leave Paris

After a good nights sleep and reluctantly getting out of bed we rode the airport shuttle to terminal 2.  Despite needing to go to 2A we first had to pass through 2G, F, E, D, C, and B.  It was like taking a quick trip around the world passing through all of the international terminals.  I led the way weaving artfully around confused travelers, rolling suitcases and small children holding the hands of their parents.

In contrast to Mike, and despite the many weary faces, I love airports.  The window lined catwalks, fresh boarding passes like amusement ride tickets in my hand, moving walkways and uncomfortable connected seats at the departure gate.  We’re never the same person coming and going from the airport.  I was reminded of talking with Mike before leaving home and in a mental void of the word airport I called it a plane station on multiple occasions, perhaps a sign that I was multi-tasking to a dangerous level in my preparations to leave the country :)

I like practicing my smile at airports, a place that is in desperate need of them.  The long faces remind me to find my smile and wear it joyfully, to come back to my breathing so that I don’t fall into the collective pitfalls of grouchiness and impatience.  Offering our smile is a great gift to ourselves and those around us, it should not be underestimated.  In the spirit of Thay, this is not wishful thinking, it is a deep practice.

After using up the last of our euros on some croissants, making our way though multiple passport and boarding pass checkpoints we patted the outside of the plane as we boarded, a sign of good faith for the journey, and found our seats.  Bound for Toronto, Canada and a brief layover we set to the sky 60 minutes late for our 8 hour tour across the north atlantic.

Day 21: The Last Day of the Retreat

Packed up for the trip home

(written on June 21st, 2012)

Riding the rails bound for Paris under blue slate bellied clouds Plum Village becomes a memory I will begin sifting through.  On the shuttle ride to Sainte Foy, where we boarded our train to Paris, the wind blew against rows and rows of ripening vineyards in the direction we were headed and the little grape trees were waving farewell.  Pulling out of lower hamlet I watched as the bell tower melted into the trees and disappeared.  I am not sad to depart, nor am I happy.  I rest someplace in between where the combination comes together beautifully inseparable.

Thay gave his last dharma talk of the 21-day retreat in upper hamlet and ended with the song No Coming, No Going.  He invited us all to visit his little hut, which was just a short walk from the meditation hall.  You could not go into his abode but we lined up single file and were able to look through the windows and see his simple hermitage overlooking the green french countryside.  We could see his bed on the floor, his writing desk where he translates sutras, his alter and his small kitchen where he told us he makes his breakfast.  A nice large wooden deck surrounded the small house which Thay sat on drinking tea as people came down the short path to visit.  To see where Thay dwells is to see him as a real person, not just as a Zen Master.  For him to open up his home to 850 lay practitioners is really quite something.

Thay on the deck of his little hut

Here are some notes that I took from Thay’s talk on June 21st:

“We should improve our way of thinking, learning, and practice in order to have insights into the ultimate (dimension), in order to increase our mindfulness.  We are a cell in the body of the sangha (community).  You are my sangha body.  Our duty as a cell is to practice in such a way that nourishes mindfulness, concentration, insight and compassion.  The sangha is the masterpiece of the buddha.  With the practice we can transform our afflictions and habit energies.  

To recognize suffering is first, look deeply into its nature.  Understanding and compassion go in pairs.  If we cannot understand ourselves we cannot love ourselves.  Suffering and happiness go together.  We can know how to transform our suffering into happiness.  

The beloved and the lover are one, they are the same.  There is no more individual happiness or individual suffering in true love.

Samsara is the realm of birth and death.  Nirvana is the realm of no birth, no death.  They are within each other.  Like the wave she does not need to search for water, she is already water.  You are already what you want to become.  The wave is water.  

So please my dear friends, we are a sangha.  We can learn always to stay with the sangha wherever we are.”

Thay’s little hut

Thay’s little kitchen

The outside of Thay’s hut

Mike and I with the head of Mike’s dharma family
Brother Phap Young

The temptation to return to old habits is strong as Mike has already bought a candy bar and Coke at the train station and the smell of chocolate perfumes the air.  I noticed myself instantly take back the role of caretaker when he told me he hadn’t eaten breakfast and was very tired before the dharma talk, at the start of our reunited path.  I wish he knew how to better care for himself, which is also to say I wish I didn’t have to worry so much.

Mike with his friends Wilfred & Han

Me with my friend & roommate Clara

Out the train window bound for Paris

Day 20

Lotus flower in New Hamlet

(written on June 20th, 2012)

Today we went to New Hamlet for the dharma talk followed by another 30 year Plum Village celebration day.

The following are some notes I took during Thay’s dharma talk on June 20th:

“Cultivate the seed of understanding and compassion so they can become stronger.  Happiness is made of understanding and compassion.  I am capable of understanding, we need to remind ourselves, this is not wishful thinking.  I am capable of compassion.  We can always think in a way that produces compassion.  We can react with compassion.  We take time to respond especially when we encounter something unpleasant.  We do not want to do automatically.  There are many ways to respond, not just one way.  When I see something unpleasant I will take the time to respond.  One breath can bring understanding.  We create a new habit.  We are not angry at our habit energy, we recognize it, we smile to it.  True happiness is made of understanding and compassion.  Thinking most of the time is useless.  We should not be possessed by our thinking.  I think therefore I am lost :)

Four fruits of practice: 1.) Feeling comfortable where we are.  Many of us are like frogs, always hopping around.  We stand on one mountain thinking another mountain is more beautiful.  We don’t know our body is a wonder already.  When we are happy with ourselves we are beautiful.  2.) I have arrived, I am home (referring to arriving in the present moment, our true home).  We don’t feel we need more conditions to be happy, we see all of the conditions (that are already) present to be happy.  We don’t run anymore.  3.) Interbeing.  We look at everything with the insight of interbeing.  In the beginning we may see that the tiny flower is outside of us.  If we lose our smile, the tiny flower will give it back to us.  4.) No birth, no death.  You touch the ultimate dimension.  True nature is no birth, no death, free from the notion of being and non-being.  

Our body is not static, it is a river flowing of cells.  Everything is a river.  You are a stream.  Feelings is a river, perception is a river, body is a river.  We must learn to look at everything as a stream.  Look into yourself and see you are not a separate self.  You are a continuation.” 

Thay sitting down by the lotus pond after walking meditation, new hamlet

After outdoor walking meditation, where everyone admired and snapped pictures of the first lotus flowers in bloom on the pond, one of Thay’s poems was read on a loud speaker set up outside and some of the sisters did a dance inspired by the reading.  I sat with Clara for the performance and from where we were we could see Thay and Sister Chan Khong’s face alight with joy.  From time to time bird calls would randomly sound over the music playing on the speakers and Clara soon pointed out that there was a toy bird by a microphone sitting next to Thay that he pushed to make the noises (click on the picture below to enlarge and see the bird).  Some of the sisters wore flower rings as they danced, others held thin branches of leaves to symbolize trees or fluttered around as a bird or butterfly in their adorned monastic robe.

Thay and Sister Chan Khong enjoying the performance by the sisters, new hamlet

After lunch there were extremely delicious and professionally prepared cupcakes in different flavors topped with artistically crafted chocolates along with an exhibit which featured many of Thay’s books, teaching aids, and gifts given to him on teaching tours by princesses, heads of government, and religious leaders encased in glass boxes on display.  In one of the displays sat an old typewriter that Thay used back in the day when he printed, hand corrected and bound his own books.

The monastic sisters performing during the celebration
(photo taken by Elisabeth Seland)

Later, while waiting for a presentation by Sister Chan Khong to begin, Mike said something that watered deep seeds of sadness in me.  I was sharing about some irritations that I had been experiencing over the last day or so and about how I was working through them and practicing to look deeper and he mentioned trying to figure out how to handle my frustrations.  I felt I had been sharing my honest thoughts in a healthy, un-stressful way but I guess he felt differently.  This is a subject we come back to over and over again throughout our relationship.  I try to communicate frustrations and then I wind up feeling squelched because he doesn’t know how to respond and gets overwhelmed when really all I am looking for is to be listened to.  We parted ways on our separate buses on uneven ground.  A weight of sadness still sits with me now four hours later.  My emotions heighten when I am tired and my pain increases when I am either emotional or tired and even more so if I am experiencing both.  It has been a long day and when I came back to lower hamlet I showered before dinner and then hit a wall of exhaustion.  I ate very quickly and then excused myself from my family to return to my bunk to lie down.

The sisters during their dance

I am mostly all packed.  I need to bring my things with me on the morning shuttle to upper hamlet tomorrow in order to leave for the train station from there after the dharma talk.  Usually after a retreat I am nervous about returning back into the fray of daily life but not this time.

I have not learned much that is brand new but I have found that many familiar teachings have penetrated deeper.  I look forward to practicing with fresh insights and excitement.

Display in exhibit, new hamlet

Day 19

Upper hamlet dharma hall

(written on June 19th, 2012)

This morning during my sit I came to see that this retreat, for me, is more about my relationships than about the dharma and understanding concepts.  The dharma talks are like compost and we as the gardeners of our own plot of earth then cultivate it into the ground to enable transformation to root and grow.  How am I interacting with people?  How am I interacting with myself?  With the world around me?

Here are some of the notes I took during Thay’s talk on June 19th:

“There is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.  We should be able to rest in the here and now, we don’t have to wait to go home to rest.  We can rest in every step.  You step in such a way you find pleasure.  Nothing to do, nowhere to go, just enjoy,  We arrive with every step.  

Any moment can be a moment of happiness, when you turn on the light, brush your teeth…  We take the time to enjoy the pleasure.  You get in the habit of being happy.  To be alive is a great joy.  

Mindfulness can heal depression.  Your neuro-plasticity (in the brain) can open a new path.  You don’t focus on your suffering, you can focus on the non-suffering side.  Stopping the thinking, appropriate attention.  Suffering is not enough.  We all have the capacity to be happy.  We have to be aware of each mental formation as it arises and call it by its name.  When we know how to take care of suffering true happiness is possible. 

Not only do you effect you, you effect others.  We are only our actions.  Each thing is made by everything else.  All the candles come together, collective and individual light.  Illuminate individual and collective.  There is no individual suffering, our suffering contains our ancestors suffering and collective suffering.  Individual and collective suffering inter-are.”  

Mike with Bart in the tea house in upper hamlet

The rain was steadily tapping at the skylights during the dharma talk and it put me in touch with the teaching of how we should never be too sure of ourselves.  A few times now I have heard a weather report for different days calling for rain or thunderstorms and inevitably while preparing for the day after breakfast one of my roommates will mention bringing a jacket or umbrella to walk to upper hamlet or just out and about.  One of my other roommates will then give an opposite weather forecast with authority and absolute sureness and each time she is wrong.  Today she said in response to rain preparations for the 45 minute walk, which everyone was taking to upper hamlet, “Oh no, there will be no rain today. It will be warm and cloudy but no rain.”  There is a seed in all of us to want to be an authority about this or that, to want recognition and attention.  When I take the time to look deeply I can always see myself within another.

Today I wrote a letter to my dad and shared about the practice and my experience with it, something I’ve been reluctant to do through the years for some reason.  It was quite nice.  I re-realize how much I enjoy expressing myself on paper every time I write.

(time elapses)

It’s almost 10:00pm, I sit illuminated by my wonderful little book light in my t-shirt and shorts on top of my sleeping bag.  I feel calm and much at ease writing in the top bunk of my darkening little room.  Nobel silence has begun but it seems the people upstairs have forgotten.  I am practicing not getting carried away by my irritation.  I see that the voices of my neighbors can be a source of anger or a light guiding me back to my breath.  Breathing in I embrace their voices, breathing out I smile (or try to).  It is not easy to do.

We had dharma discussion this afternoon (my last one, there will be one more in the afternoon of the 21st but we’ll be gone by then) where I once again found no urge to speak.  Talking is a bit overrated sometimes.  I flow much more freely and with ease on paper.  I am writing all of the time here – journaling, letters, poetry, notes.  I’ve nearly gone through all of the ink in my favorite pen during these 3 weeks where at home it takes me 2-3 months to use the same amount.

Pictures in upper hamlet dharma hall
(click to enlarge)

Our evening program consisted of a presentation on mindful eating by the co-author of Savor (Thich Nhat Hanh is the other author).  It was very well done and informative.  It draws me to read the book, which I’ve hesitated reading.  I see that I would benefit from it.  I, like many others, maybe most others, was never taught how to eat healthfully.  There are days where I still eat like a teenager who’s parents have gone away for the weekend.  My habit energies are very strong and convincing and often whisper, “you’ve had a long day, you deserve some chocolate.”

Here are some of the notes I took during Dr. Lilian Cheung’s talk (she is from the department of nutrition at the Harvard school of public health) on mindful eating:

There is a stress epidemic: 75% of adults in the U.S report experiencing moderate to high levels of stress, and 1 in 4 adults in the european union.  There is a combination of toxic food, toxic media and high stress.  Fast food and soft drink companies are using the latest neurosciences (FMRI and EEG) to study and trigger the subconscious of youth making them more susceptible to advertising (Frito-Lay is one of the major companies using this tactic).

Health benefits of mindfulness: reduces stress (well documented), pain management, reduces anxiety and depression, improves the immune system, improves quality of life for chronic disease patients, aids in substance abuse rehabilitation, helps with smoking cessation, and helps with weight management.  

“Mindful eating is not a diet or about giving up anything at all.  It’s about experiencing food more intensely, especially the pleasure of it.”  A quote from the New York Times. 

7 Practices of a Mindful Eater: 1.) honoring your food, eat as the only task  2.) engage all 6 senses  3.) use modest portions (9″ plate)  4.) savor bites, chew thoroughly  5.) eat slowly  6.) don’t skip meals  7.) eat a plant based diet

Go to and for more info

My pocket buddha in a lovely flower

Day 18

Inside the really sweet old windmill

(written on June 18th, 2012)

Most mornings, like this one, the sky is gray and clouded over.  But already at 7:30am blues are breaking through.  The birds are always calling.  When the breeze gallops into a wind it’s as if the dharma hall is inhaling, snaps and crackles from the roof and windows can be heard.  The frogs are croaking on the pond where buds of lotus flowers are popping up.  In the dark dark of night a thunderstorm came loudly calling bringing rain and lightening.  When it woke me up I instantly worried about all of the campers and appreciated that I was indoors.  I remember thunderstorms in my childhood, loud, crackling, and shaking.  I loved watching them roll in, smelling their scent thick in the air, playing in the puddles in my bathing suit.

(time elapses)

It’s nighttime now and I am soon to sleep.  Today was our last lazy day.  There was a Wake Up (young people’s offshoot of the Order of Interbeing) picnic lunch at an old windmill nearby.  Most folks hiked there but Mike and I rode in one of the monastery vans with a long term resident layperson of Upper Hamlet from Holland named Bart.  We all gathered at the bell tower around 9:30 this morning in upper hamlet before departing for the windmill.  When the young women from lower hamlet arrived they all came together and were taking group photos and as I was the only lower hamlet person not included I felt quite left out.  After spending a few minutes looking deeply I had a realization that helped me to understand the situation more clearly.  All of the girls there were in the same dharma family and in their early to mid twenties, meaning I was 8-10 years older then all of them and they might very well view me more as an elder then a peer.  Earlier as Mike was attempting to round up the young people for the picnic I went to the bell tower where I met Joe, a practitioner from Michigan and a well established Plum Village musician.  As we were talking and waiting for everyone to show up Joe asked when I had ordained into the Order of Inerbeing.  When I told him it was 5 years ago in 2007 he responded by saying, “wow, so you’re an elder.”  Feeling unworthy of such a title I said, “Well, I feel more like a beginner still.  Maybe I’m a baby elder.”  This exchange helped me to draw the insight about the girls and the pictures.  Lately I’ve been experiencing occasions where I still feel quite young and like a beginner practitioner but others see me differently then I feel, others see me as an elder type figure.  So I am practicing to embrace the elder within me.

French countryside view from the windmill

After the others departed on the hike to the windmill Bart, Mike and I went to town to buy some provisions for lunch, as we were the meal transportation team for everyone (about 40 people).  On the way to a small surrounding town, the name of which I cannot recall, we picked up 3 fellow retreatants from upper hamlet and brought them along for the ride.  The ride to the bakery where we planned on purchasing croissants for everyone for lunch was really enjoyable.  I was the only gal in a van full of guys and I felt so much more at ease then I have been feeling in my hamlet of all women.  At the bakery we bought their entire stock of croissants along with a few fresh loafs of bread.  It was a slice of bliss being in a small town french bakery, everything looked and smelled so delicious.  Mike and I ordered a few things for ourselves and then headed back to upper hamlet to pull together a few last supplies for the picnic lunch.  When we arrived at the windmill we had to haul all of the goods, food for 40 people, dishes, jugs of water and benches for a food table, up a steep hill.  As everyone was already up there waiting for us we formed a human chain up the hill, which set a nice tone of community building.  Being part of the food crew was helpful for me as it gave me a niche to plug into.  I quite enjoy setting up, maintaining and organizing the clean up of group meals, it’s a way I take care of people and where my skillset shines.

Contrary to what Mike and I thought there was no program for the picnic.  It was simply being together with other young people.  Joe and another girl played some music (see picture below) as we set the food table up and people lounged around talking.  The windmill was very old, as everything in France is, and you could crawl inside and admire its aged beauty.

Playing music at the windmill

The Wake Up movement, while we have a lot to offer, is not where Mike and I quite fit.  We tried talking to a monk at the picnic, who is in charge of a lot of the Wake Up momentum, about the age limit that is set on the movement but there was not much openness to dialog about it and he seemed defensive.  (There is an age limit of 18-35 that is set up for Wake Up gatherings, retreats, and sangha groups which doesn’t sit well with Mike or I).  The monk spoke about how often people ask about the age limit so we gathered that he has to defend this part of the Wake Up movement a lot.  Having an age limit feels too un-inclusive to us.  In such an open practice and tradition having an age limit or any sort of specific factor for joining a sangha does not feel right at all.  I was hoping to gain more understanding in talking with the brother but the answers he gave did not make much sense to me.

After we ate, cleaned up, and formed a human chain back down the hill to the van to load up our supplies (see picture below) Bart dropped me off at lower hamlet and Mike wound up getting out as well to spend more time together.  I skipped the evening program to hang out with Mike before he went back to upper hamlet and because I really didn’t feel like doing a beginning anew practice with my dharma family, which is what was scheduled for the program tonight.  I still feel like a stranger in many ways here in lower hamlet and with my dharma family.  Part of which I clearly see is due to my own discomforts and lack of effort.

Our human chain down the hill
(if you click on the pic you can see Mike down the line)

Day 17

Lower Hamlet Office

(written on June 17th, 2012)

Today there was a Q &A in lower hamlet after we had a mindfulness training ceremony where many people received the 5 trainings (receiving the 5 trainings means accepting them in a formal ceremony as a personal practice and cultivating them in your daily life).  Many irritations rose up for me during the Q & A, mostly by the questions asked, many in my opinion were not very good questions and wasted time.  Folks would sit in the chair next to Thay and then proceed to prattle on about this or that not really knowing how to boil their question down.  I watched as my irritation grew, my chest tightened and my breath became shallow.  People laughed out of nervousness and awkwardness to things spoken that were a cause of suffering and this always bothers me as well.  If people were listening deeply to the words spoken they would not laugh.  It is interesting what habits we can develop as a human collective when motivated by awkwardness.

Here are some brief notes from the Q & A with Thay that I took on June 17th:

Q: When or how quickly can we teach mindfulness to others?

A: You can begin teaching right away by the way you breathe and the way you walk. 

Q: How do I practice letting go?

A: We need to first let go of our ideas.  Your idea of happiness (may be a notion that might be in your way).  Our fear makes it hard to let go.  We shouldn’t be too sure of our ideas.  What is a misfortune may turn out to be a fortune, it depends on how we handle the situation.  (He gave the example of his exile from Vietnam and said that if it weren’t for being exiled he would not have formed sangha in Europe and America). 

Q: How do I deal with deep, repressed anger?

A: Everyone has a teacher inside.  Our afflictions can be useful.  We don’t need to throw our suffering out, we look deeply into it.  

Monks and nuns in lower hamlet

I feel sometimes as though many people here are trying to be the same – walk the same somber way, have drawn faces into the same serious expression while sitting, speak the same always loving way.  It feels phony to me sometimes, pretend like we’re performing an all female production of some intentional community flick.  I also see my judgements and perceptions as impermanent, like clouds covering over the sun.  I have also experienced sinking down into the river of practice where my steps naturally become slow and diligent and my presence expands.  Despite feeling like a lone warrior at times in the Plum Village resistance I also feel like I should be more compliant, perhaps the two go together.

After lunch I took a nap and then skipped the deep relaxation in order to do some laundry and take a shower.  It is another warm, bright day.  Thay told us that the first of the lotus flowers has bloomed in new hamlet.  (I very much appreciate how open the retreat format is.  As a retreatant you really make it what you want.  If you don’t want to wake up for the morning program you don’t have to, if you don’t want to attend a certain event you don’t have to.  There’s no one checking up on you or making sure you do things just so.)

I spend a lot of time picking flowers and leaves to press in my notebooks.  My plan is to have them encircle Thich Nhat Hanh cards that I bought from the bookstore and have them framed as gifts for friends back home. I pick a flower or some leaves, pull out my notebook and gently place them inside and put my notebook away in my bag.  Then 2 minutes later I come across a new beautiful flower or nicely shaped leaf and I stop to pull it out again.  It’s an enjoyable practice to be captured by these small wonders of life.

If I could walk unencumbered by pain and fatigue I think I would walk the countryside often, it is quite beautiful and green.  In between programs I nap, write, read, collect leaves and flowers, browse the bookstore if it’s open, take pictures, wash clothes, stretch or dance, and tend to the fresh herbs for the tea table.  When Mike isn’t around I talk very little.  I really enjoy being quiet, it’s like a warm bath in a calm summer evening ocean.

Nothing is ever black and white.  Where there is comfort in silence there is also discomfort with social interaction, they are both sometimes happening in the same breath.  When I perceive someone as having a sour face and think for a moment that it’s personal when I look deeper I see that there is suffering present.  When I think I have someone figured out, I don’t.  Everyone has suffering.  I am not unique and I am unique.  The middle path is comprised of both sides of the path coming together, leaning on one another.

Lower hamlet dharma hall

This morning I had the best croissant I’ve ever had.  We had breakfast with the other hamlets and when we eat together each hamlet brings its own food and dishes, since there are so many mouths to feed, and each hamlet  has different food.  Mike’s hamlet had croissants and they looked so good that I had him get me one of the extras.  Food tends not to change vey much around here so when there’s something new it’s especially exciting.  I envision a renewed appreciation for certain things when the retreat comes to a close – sleeping next to Mike, having access to a wide variety of food, my music, getting together with my friends, and having my own space where people aren’t talking or snoring.

Alter in lower hamlet dharma hall

Day 16

My room in Cherry House

(written on June 16th, 2012)

Thay is teaching about perception, I am listening in the periphery of my mind.  The notions are too thick for me to drink in.  A soft breeze flows through a nearby open door bringing the sounds of a weed wacker from next door and the aroma of someone’s fragrant soap.  Mike and I are seated in the fourth row from the front in the Assembly of Stars meditation hall in lower hamlet.  The name is funny to me.  For some reason whenever Thay mentions the hall’s name I think of Ed McMahon and the old tv show Star Search.  I envision an announcer saying, “welcome ladies and gentleman, we are here broadcasting live in the Assembly of Stars concert hall in New York City!  Please give a round of applause to your host of Star Search, Ed McMahon!”

The following are some of the notes I took during Thay’s talk on June 16th:

(The 6 mantras of true love)  1.) I am here for you.  To be there is a practice, not just a declaration.  The practice is to restore your true presence.  Before you can be there for him or her you have to be there for yourself.  The first definition of love is to be there.  You cannot love deeply without mindfulness.  2.) Darling, I know you are there and I am very happy.  Nothing is more precious than your true presence.  3.) Darling, I know you suffer, that is why I am here for you.  (Saying this) she will suffer less right away.  4.) Darling, I suffer please help.  It is so simple but so difficult!  We will suffer less right away.  5.) This is a happy moment.  This is not wishful thinking.  We have so many conditions of happiness.  It is mindfulness that makes the present moment into a wonderful moment.  6.) Darling, you are partially right.  (When we are criticized or praised).

(time elapses)

I am terribly exhausted and my body is very sore.  It is 4:30 in the afternoon, Saturday.  After the dharma talk there was outdoor walking meditation, which I never participate in on account of it being far too slow for my little feet and my chronic pain, followed by what is called a formal lunch, which I had never heard of before today.  All of the hamlets were together.  The monastics dish their food in a separate area and the rest of us dish our food together with the OI members going first arranged by year of ordination.  I was surprised by how close to the front I was given that I ordained only 5 years ago in 2007.  After receiving our food the OI led all of the laypeople on a slow procession to the dharma hall.  As we neared the hall we stopped on either side of the dirt and stone path, men on one side and women on the other, and stood waiting in silence for 20 minutes or so for the monastics, led by Thay, to walk through.  Then we continued to the hall.  After everyone was seated, which took some time since we came in slow, single file, some words were spoken and then sung and spoken again in a different language, three in all: english, french and vietnamese.  From dishing our bowls to the first bite it might have taken around 45 minutes to an hour.  While the formal lunch was quite special it was also challenging.  I was very hungry and my body was overworked from standing so long (for my chronic pain standing is the worst action on my body).  After washing my dishes Mike and I soon parted ways, me to my bunk and him to his hamlet.  It was difficult to choose rest over spending time with Mike but I knew I desperately needed to lie down – I had already not listened to my body’s needs once today by not sitting down on the side of the path in the lunch procession and was paying the price.  I worried that it might be disrespectful to kneel down while waiting for the brothers and sisters and I wondered what others would think of me if I did so, since I had left my cane in my room.  Sometimes I use the cane to simply signify that yes I have a condition and need certain accommodations, even if I don’t need it in the moment to help me get around (my pain varies a lot through the day and some days are better than others and I find I don’t need it all of the time).  When people see a young woman who doesn’t look sick many judgements and misperceptions can ensue.

A sign one of my roommates made for cherry house :)

Each time I have to part from Mike knowing we won’t see each other until the next day is difficult.  This part of me is glad there are only 4 1/2 days left.  One of the insights I will take away with me is that it’s OK when things are difficult.  Say bon, as the french say, it’s OK.  This does not mean I don’t take action it means that I do not have to be swept away by my afflictions.  If I am always working to avoid pain and discomfort, thinking it is other than life, I will never be free.

It is another sunny day, 23.5 degrees celsius (74.3 fahrenheit).  My alarm clock has a thermometer that can convert to either fahrenheit or celsius and since the unit of measurement here is celsius I am trying to learn.  The standard time throughout France is monitored in military time, although I am sure that’s not what they call it here.  I’ve never been very good with military time, always having to count on my fingers what time it is past noon, but now I am learning that too.  There has been so much newness to step into here and I feel I’ve adapted quite well.  Being in another country, separated from Mike, having 7 roommates, being with mostly all women for 3 weeks, having almost no distractions like the computer or netflix, waking up early, and having really no control over what or when to eat or the schedule.  Being equipped to handle impermanence is a strong and powerful tool.  Lately I have been seeing this skill emerge more in myself and it is like a breath of fresh air.

On loan from Clara I am reading Sister Chan Khong’s book Learning True Love.  For some reason the title has kept me from reading it in the past.  I am so grateful that I was out of something to read and that this book was really all that Clara had on her that wasn’t written in dutch.  It is a story of her life and her work with Thich Nhat Hanh.  I’ve never read such an inspirational account of the power of one.  Her stories are almost unbelievable to me.  The suffering, the trials of spirit, the devastation she has encountered and how she continued to keep going and practicing will stay with me.  When my suffering seems great I will hope to think of her reaching remote, war torn areas across Vietnam through active fire on foot and boat carrying rice and medical supplies to impoverished villages.  I will hope to remember her secretly eating a petition calling for peace from her backpack in the backseat of a police car after being picked up for something benign, knowing that if they found it in her possession she would be jailed for many years, if not tortured or killed.  My suffering, while it should not be considered trite or unimportant, should also not lose sight of the world’s cries or be taken too heavy handed.  (I wound up being able to finish the book a day before leaving Plum Village.  It was an incredible book and I highly recommend it).

Bell tower in lower hamlet

Inspired by Thay, the retreat and my own insights I wrote this:

“My friend, at some point, laying our suffering down is more skillful than carrying it around.”

“But how?  How do I do this?” she asks anxiously with squinting eyes and scrunched forehead.

“By smiling,” he gently replies.

“But I have so much suffering, so many afflictions, how can I possibly smile?” she asks quickly.

After following his breath for a couple of minutes he answers, “We smile to our pain so that it knows we see it.  We smile in such a way that our pain knows it’s OK to be there.  We practice, with our smile, to accept ourselves deeply and fully for who we are.  We smile because we also see that we are made up of more than our pain alone.  We smile because we are alive.”